As the Dixie Fire scorched northern California over the past month, the town of Susanville at the foot of the Sierra Nevada has become a haven.
Panicked residents of evacuated communities, including the devastated town of Greenville about an hour and a half away, sought refuge at a local community college. Firefighters have set up a base camp at the city’s fairgrounds, where large animals are kept to protect them from the fire.
But as the winds picked up on Tuesday, there were growing fears that Susanville itself was now threatened by the blaze, the second largest on record in California, which grew by about 40,000 acres overnight. . Officials on Wednesday morning said the situation was largely unchanged with the blaze still around eight miles away.
With a population of 15,000, Susanville – a former sawmill town that long ago became a prison town, with two state prisons and a federal facility in the area – is the largest community to come across. the way to the fire.
“It’s concerning,” said Mayor Mendy Schuster, who was putting away clothes, gathering family photos and important documents on Tuesday morning as she prepared for possible mandatory evacuation orders .
“Lots of prayers,” she added.
Other residents followed his lead, loading important items and backing their cars into their driveways to allow a quicker exit if evacuation orders arrived. At the same time, the community was warned that gas stations were running out of fuel because tankers could not enter.
Officials battling the Dixie fire, which consumed more than 600,000 acres and at least 1,100 buildings, including 630 homes, were grappling with the possibility of evacuating not only the residents of Susanville, but the thousands of residents. others who sought safety there.
This includes many residents of Janesville, a population of around 1,400, where Monday’s fire forced evacuation orders. The fire continued to spread south of Janesville on Wednesday.
“There have been some pretty intense fires,” said Dan McKeague, a public information officer for the US Forest Service, which is in charge of much of the land where the Dixie fire burned. “Today we will probably see flame lengths of 200 feet again.”
This means that firefighters are unable to directly attack the blaze up close – they can usually only do so when the flames are less than four feet tall – and instead focus on digging containment lines with bulldozers.
Firefighters said those lines, along with a burn scar from a fire last year, should help protect Susanville. But a bigger concern, with the unpredictability of the winds, is that embers could fly ahead and start point fires.
“We’re literally on the wind right now,” said Lisa Bernard, spokesperson for the Lassen County Sheriff’s Office. “There is definitely a threat.”
The economic base of Susanville, the county seat, rests largely on neighboring prisons. The state recently announced its intention to shut down one of the facilities there; prison populations have declined as a result of criminal justice reforms, including sentencing.
The plan was pushed back by Susanville, who filed a lawsuit against the state in an attempt to stop the shutdown and keep jobs and income there.
There were no plans to evacuate state prisons on Tuesday, said Dana Simas, spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. She said the blaze was around 13 miles away and authorities had taken action to limit the impact of the unhealthy air by restricting the movement of people inside and distributing N95 masks.
Even as Susanville prepared for the blaze on Tuesday, a court hearing for the city’s trial to keep the jail open was scheduled to unfold as scheduled in the afternoon.
Dan Newton, Susanville’s interim city administrator, lives on the outskirts of town and was ordered to evacuate on Monday. He spent the night in his motorhome, parked on a city street.
When reached by phone Tuesday morning, he said he was heading to a planning meeting on the possible evacuation of the city, before attending the afternoon hearing.
“The concern is great,” he said. “The winds are increasing in speed.